Israel is now also a proxy for its Sunni Muslim neighbours

Israel responded to Iran’s attack not just on its own behalf but that of Arab states that also oppose Iran


Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei after casting his ballots during the parliamentary and key clerical body elections at a polling station in Tehran on 1 March 2024. (Photo by ATTA KENARE/AFP via Getty Images)

April 25, 2024 15:38

For anyone with even a passing knowledge of the realities of the Middle East, much of the coverage of the Iranian attack on Israel has been frustrating. We’ve been told that it was unprecedented — Iran has never attacked Israel directly before – and shocking – no one really expected Iran to up the ante in such a massive way, sending a barrage of missiles and drones that were intended to devastate Israel.

Yes, that’s all true. But it’s such a small part of the wider story that it’s one of those truths that is actually misleading without context. Because while Iran certainly hasn’t attacked Israel directly before, it has spent decades attacking and murdering Israelis via its proxies, Hamas and Hezbollah.

But even that’s not the most misleading absence from the coverage and analysis that has since followed. The story that matters isn’t that Iran has never directly attacked Israel before. That’s just been a tactical decision by the mullahs as to how best to pursue their broader strategic aim.

No, the real story is that strategic (or rather theological) aim – which is not just wiping Israel from the face of the earth but creating a caliphate across the planet. The Islamic Republic is driven by a doctrine known as Mahdism, which holds that the Twelfth Shiite Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi, will one day reappear to bring the world together under a new caliphate. Iran’s role, as the leader of global Islam, is to pave the way for this by removing obstacles such as the Zionist state. This ideology is what guides Iranian strategy, such as treating the US and its allies as the Great Satan.

In the secular West we do not just recoil from the idea that theology can drive a nation’s actions; we simply refuse to accept the notion. So we don’t take any of this at face value and treat Iran as just another country, however distasteful we might find it, with whom we can do diplomacy.

That leads to category errors such as the JCPOA (Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action), otherwise known as the Iran Deal, which has claims to being the most ill-conceived and counter-productive international agreement since the Second World War. Instead of continuing with the sanctions which were having a real impact on the Islamic Republic’s ability to develop its nuclear weapons programme and fund its proxy terror, the JCPOA led to the West lifting sanctions, which boosted the Iranian economy and thus its terror funding – and gave its nuclear weapons programme a new lease of life. As Richard Goldberg, the former director for Countering Iranian Weapons of Mass Destruction for the White House National Security Council, wrote in last week’s JC: “Iran came into a major windfall as oil exports rose above two million barrels per day for the first time since the JCPOA period, and $6 billion was released to them as part of a ransom payment to free five American hostages.”

It’s the same inability to comprehend that Iran might be driven by its theology that means here in the UK we rarely take the stated aims of Islamists seriously. They almost always say exactly what they believe but it’s just ignored. Since October 7, for example, there have been any number of sermons published online by mosques. None of it is hidden. In one, an imam heaps praise on those responsible: “Dying in battle, dying whilst defending the holy land is martyrdom. It’s a win-win situation for the Palestinian people.” In another, a preacher says: “Give victory to our mujahideen brothers in Palestine, give them victory against the occupying Jews.” There are many more such sermons online.

The Arab world, on the other hand, understands completely the idea of theology as a driving force, which is why so many Sunni states have found themselves lining up to work with Israel, the one country in the region that stands up to the threat of a nuclear Iran because it has no choice as its prime target.

It’s sometimes said that Israel is a proxy for the free world in standing up to Iran. That’s obviously true. But in the context of the Middle East now, after Iran’s attack on Israel and the help given by Jordan, the Saudis and the UAE in supplying intelligence and shooting down Iranian missiles and drones, the reality is that Israel is also a proxy for Sunni Muslim states which understand the threat posed by Iran.

That’s another reason why the calls by the US, UK and others for Israel not to respond to the Iranian attack and, in President Biden’s surreal phrase, “take the win” have been so misguided. Iran has drawn one lesson from Western policy: that we are weak. All we have done (other than under President Trump) is appease it. If Israel had simply sat on its hands after the first direct attack by Iran, it would have shown Iran that Israel is as weak as the rest of the West, and it would have changed the status quo. A missile barrage would have become the floor for future Iranian attacks, not the ceiling. Israel was given no choice but to respond — not only for its own future safety, not only for the West’s but, crucially, for its Sunni Arab neighbours. That’s what’s new, and what has changed the entire dynamic of the region.

April 25, 2024 15:38

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